A Brief History of Soviet Silent Cinema

One hundred years ago, the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, nationalised the Russian film industry and proclaimed, 'Of all the arts, for us, the cinema is the most important.' In order to mark the anniversary of this momentous declaration, which was to have an impact upon film-making around the world, Cinema Paradiso harks back to the golden age of Soviet silent cinema.

Considering it's geographically the biggest country on Earth, it's perhaps surprising that Russia hasn't made a greater contribution to cinema history. As we shall see, a combination of socio-economic backwardness and political isolationism largely prevented state-sponsored film-makers within the Soviet Union from exchanging stylistic and thematic ideas with their counterparts in industries predominantly run along commercial lines. Yet, for a brief period in the 1920s, the alignment of revolutionary zeal and creative experimentation made the USSR the centre of the cinematic universe.

Flickering in the Darkness

It's often forgotten that the Russian Empire had two competitors in the race to project motion pictures. Neither Alexei Samarsky's Chronomotograph nor Ivan Akimov's Stroboscope caught on, however, and the first movie shows in both St Petersburg and Moscow were given with Louis and August Lumière's Cinématographe in May 1896. Indeed, it was Lumière agents Francis Doublier and Charles Moisson who captured the first moving images on Russian soil when they recorded scenes from Tsar Nicholas II's coronation. Four months later, AP Fedetsky's Cossack Track Riders became the first indigenous footage. But, notwithstanding the efforts of Vladimir Sashin-Fyodorov, early Russian production was dominated by such foreign companies as Pathé, Gaumont and Edison.

The sheer size of the country and the distance between the major cities meant that cinema struggled to capture the popular imagination as it had done across Europe and the United States. It didn't help that Russia's leading actors felt the new medium was beneath their dignity. But Alexander Drankov's Boris Godunov (1907) enabled him to open the first film studio in 1910, while also serving as official photographer to the Duma.

Among the other significant titles released around this period were Vladimir Romashkov's Stenka Razin (1908) and Vasili Goncharov and Alexander Khanzhonkov's The Defence of Sebastopol (1911). But, while the Tsar had loaned troops to give this patriotic epic a whiff of authenticity, he considered cinema to be an empty trifle that could prove harmful in the wrong hands. Consequently, he appointed a censor to remove any references to social issues and the majority of pictures produced in Petersburg and Moscow were films d'art, detective stories and ingenious animations like Ladislas Starewicz's stop-motion gem, The Cameraman's Revenge (1912).

Director Yakov Protazanov also specialised in literary items like Departure of the Grand Old Man (1912), a biopic of the master novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was played by Christopher Plummer in Michael Hoffman's The Last Station (2009). The rarefied atmosphere of Russian film-making in this period was deftly recreated by Nikita Mikhalkov (who would win an Oscar for Burnt By the Sun, 1994) in A Slave of Love (1977). But directors like Kai Hansen, Vladimir Gardin, Pyotr Chardynin, Vladimir Egorov and Vyacheslav Viskovski have largely been forgotten by UK viewers since only Yevgeni Bauer's Mad Love (1913) has been issued on DVD.

Going into the Red

As Russian film-makers were so reliant upon imported equipment and film stock, production started to slow down soon after the outbreak of the Great War in the summer of 1914. Materials all-but ran out in 1916 and it's ironic that the last significant picture made during the Tsarist era, Protazanov's Tolstoy adaptation, Father Sergius, should become the first to be released after the provisional government established under Alexander Kerensky in February 1917 had been replaced by Lenin's Bolshevik regime after the October Revolution.

Not that many Russians saw it, however, as operational cinemas were few and far between. But those still in business were permitted to show pre-1917 titles and foreign imports, on the proviso that they didn't promote anti-socialist messages. As so many of the leading directors, producers and actors had fled into exile, Lenin initially left what production there was in private hands. In June 1918, however, the Moscow Cinema Committee began sponsoring a weekly film series entitled Kino-Nedelya.

Among its editors was the 22 year-old David Kaufman, who used the pseudonym Dziga Vertov, meaning 'spinning top'. For the next three years, he would travel on an agitprop train that enabled him to shoot, develop and edit short educational and propagandist films to spread the revolutionary message to the furthest flung corners of the country. These 'agitki' were often used to illustrate lectures and boost the morale of troops fighting for the Red Army in the Civil War against the pro-Tsarist Whites.

In 1918, Vertov produced the documentary, Anniversary of the Revolution (which has just been restored to mark its centenary). Four years later, he compiled History of the Civil War before teaming with cameraman brother Mikhail Kaufman and editor wife Elizaveta Svilova on the Kino-Pravda newsreel that drove home 'film truth' with a 'kino fist'. Over the next three years, the 'kinok' trio issued 23 editions of their pioneering cine-magazine. Produced in 1924, #21 is available on Eureka's Man With the Movie Camera and Other Works By Dziga Vertov, along with the 1924 documentary, Kino-Eye, and the sound features, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931) and Three Songs About Lenin (1934).

Vertov's masterpiece, however, is Man With the Movie Camera (1929), which refined the techniques he had utilised in his newsreels to create the most exhilarating 'city symphony' of the silent era. Largely filmed in the Ukrainian cities of Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa and comprising over 1700 individual shots, this audacious 'day in the life' project continuously draws attention to its own production by making Mikhail Kaufman's camera the star of the show. But the self-reflexivity also extends to Vertov's bravura use of jump cuts, match shots, canted angles, extreme close-ups, stop motion, freeze frames, superimposition, multiple exposures, split screens and reversed footage. No wonder he could proclaim, 'I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it.'

Famously, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin named their radical film-making collective Groupe Dziga Vertov and several of their outings are available to rent from Cinema Paradiso, including Wind From the East (1970), Lotte in Italia and Vladimir and Rosa (both 1971). Also produced by the collaborative Godard around this period are A Film Like Any Other (1968) and British Sounds (1970). Yet, while Vertov became an iconic figure for left-leaning film-makers in the 1960s, he was not alone in employing the new style of abrasive abstract editing known as 'montage'.

One of the first appointments Lenin made was to place Anatoly Lunacharsky in charge of the People's Commissariat for Education. Influenced by the Constructivist art movement, he played a key role in setting up the Bolshoi Drama Theatre and backed the agitprop train scheme. He was also responsible for state censorship and oversaw the activities of Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, in running the Commissariat's cinema sub-section.

When Lenin nationalised the film industry in 1919, Lunacharsky opted to keep showing old Russian films, as he recognised their escapist value and their potential to raise the revenue that he would require to rebuild the cine-infrastructure. In 1922, he even relaxed the ban on imports from the capitalist West to help educate audiences and aspiring directors alike. Under his guidance, Soviet productivity rose from 38 features in 1922 to 109 in 1928, which were shown in 2730 cinemas and 4680 workers clubs around the country. Lunacharsky also dispatched 3770 travelling projection units to outlying villages so that everyone heard the Communist message.

On the production side, the Commissariat followed the opening of the Sovkino and Mezhrabpomfilm studios in Moscow with the VUFKU, Gosinprom Gruzii and Belgoskino facilities in the Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus. Most importantly, it founded the State Film Institute (VGIK) in Moscow to train a new generation of film-makers. At its head was the inspirational figure of Lev Kuleshov, whose notions on editing would transform global cinema.

Defying his well-to-do father to study at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Kuleshov had worked as a set designer for Yevgeni Bauer before serving as a cameraman on an agit-train during the Civil War. Having made his directorial debut with Engineer Prite's Project (1918), Kuleshov was invited for run a workshop on the VGIK campus that attracted such future film-makers as Vsevolod Pudovkin and, for a brief time, Sergei Eisenstein. As there wasn't any money to make any films, Kuleshov had his classes act out playlets in front of an empty camera and design storyboards to show how they would be edited. He also got hold of a print of DW Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and had his students re-edit scenes to change their literal and emotional meaning.

He called his strategy, 'associational montage' and devised the Kuleshov Effect to demonstrate its power. Taking a close-up of the Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mozhuhkin, Kuleshov intercut it with images of a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin and a woman reclining on a couch to show how the impassive expression takes on a look of hunger, grief and desire according to its juxtaposition. During the interviews recalled by Kent Jones in the 2015 documentary, Hitchcock/Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock revealed how he used this gambit to reflect James Stewart's attitude towards his neighbours in Rear Window (1954).

In addition to proving how cinematic meaning lay less in photographic reality than in the organisation of the imagery, Kuleshov also came up with the concept of 'creative geography', which enabled him to link shots taken in completely different places into a seemingly continuous sequence. Thus, a couple meeting on a Moscow street could point to the White House in Washingon before climbing the steps of a church in the Soviet capital. A century later, this technique is still employed by film-makers from Hollywood to Bollywood.

The ingenuity of Kuleshov's approach is evident in a couple of classic silent comedies, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) and The Death Ray (1925), although he demonstrated a more serious side in later pictures like The Great Consoler (1931) and the morale-boosters he produced during the Great Patriotic War. His greatest achievement, however, lies in his theoretical influence and the impetus he gave to one of the most important figures in film history.

Colliding Images

Born in the Latvian capital, Riga, 19 year-old Sergei Eisenstein was studying architecture at the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering and drawing cartoons under the name 'Sir Gay' when the 1917 revolutions broke out. While his father fled to avoid Bolshevism, Eisenstein rallied to the cause and fought on the Eastern Front with the Red Army. It was here that he first encountered the Japanese art that would profoundly influence his film-making style. But he was too busy designing propaganda posters, decorating agitprop trains and directing plays for an amateur theatre troupe to consider cinema.

In 1920, Eisenstein joined the Proletkult Theatre, where he earned a reputation for bold staging ideas and provocative sets. On enrolling at the State School for Direction, he learned about improvisation from Vsevolod Meyerhold, while his association with Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg's Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS) introduced him to circus and taught him how to use bold strategies to excite the audience. He also began to take a closer interest in cinema, gaining an appreciation of the editing techniques employed by DW Griffith in films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919) in Kuleshov's workshop. He also gained practical experience in helping Esfir Shub recut Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922) for Soviet consumption.

In 1923, Eisenstein published his ideas on cinematic style in a manifesto entitled, The Montage of Attractions. He also made his directorial debut with Glumov's Diary, which featured in his first professional stage production, Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man (1923). Demonstrating the influence of FEKS and filled with the kind of stop-motion substitutions that had been pioneered by George Méliès in the films available on Jacques Meny's Méliès the Magician (1997), the short spoof was also included in Kino-Pravda #16 under the title, 'Spring Smiles of the Proletkult'. Moreover, it convinced Eisenstein that he could reach a bigger audience with moving pictures than he ever could with live pieces like Do You Hear, Moscow? and Gas Masks (both 1924), which he staged in the Moscow gas works.

Originally planned as the fifth episode in Towards Dictatorship, a seven-part guide to the mechanics of class struggle, Strike (1925) became Eisenstein's first feature. Collaborating with cinematographer Eduard Tissé, he employed expressionist angles to capture the sense of dislocation caused by a factory worker's suicide and the hostility of the bosses to a peaceful protest held in his memory. Focusing on a 'mass hero', Eisenstein stressed the solidarity of the proletariat, as intimidation turns to violence in the famous finale, in which Eisenstein intercuts images of the troops slaughtering the strikers with footage from an abattoir. The influence of FEKS and Kuleshov is readily evident, but the associational montage method that saw shots collide with one another to convey metaphorical or abstract concepts was rooted in both the Marxist dialectic and Japanese pictographs.

Not everyone appreciated this radical approach to the cinema of attractions, however, and Eisenstein was reminded that he was supposed to be creating works that could be readily understood by intellectuals and peasants alike. But the film was feted across the continent and he was invited to participate in The Year 1905, an eight-part celebration of the 20th anniversary of the first revolution against the Romanov dynasty. Detailed to cover a naval mutiny in the Crimea, Eisenstein was forced by bad weather to film the Odessa Steps sequence ahead of schedule and he became so obsessed with this 42-shot montage that he abandoned the prepared screenplay and spent the next 10 weeks improvising action for what would become Battleship Potemkin (1925).

Constructed in five acts, this 86-minute film contained 1346 shots at a time when the average Hollywood feature used only 600. Although the plate smashing scene, the fog caesura and the Constructivist glorification of the ship's engines were all memorable, the best-known segment remains the intricately assembled Odessa Steps sequence, which was recreated by Brian De Palma in The Untouchables (1987). It has also been referenced in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972), George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) and Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), and had been parodied in Woody Allen's Bananas (1971) and Love and Death (1975), as well as in Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker's Naked Gun 33?: The Final Insult (1994).

Once again, Soviet critics accused Eisenstein of formalism and intellectual elitism and the picture was only shown in small venues. But such was its perceived political potency that it was often censored or outlawed abroad, with the British ban lasting until 1954. Its influence was incalculable, however, as is made apparent in the BFI's dual edition with John Grierson's Drifters (1929), a study of the North Sea herring fleet that launched the British Documentary Movement, whose achievement is commemorated in the BFI's Land of Promise collection.

Despite the lukewarm domestic reception for his work, Eisenstein was chosen to make October (1927) to mark the 10th anniversary of Lenin's seizure of power. Once again, Eisenstein had planned to cover events across Russia, but opted to focus on the storming of the Winter Palace in Petrograd (which had since been renamed Leningrad in honour of the Bolshevik leader, who had died three years earlier). As a teenager, he had witnessed Nicholas II's troops firing on the crowds during the July Days, while he had read American activist John Reed's accounts of the heated ideological debates in Ten Days That Shook the World, a tome that would later inspire Warren Beatty's Oscar winner, Reds (1981).

The entire city, its population and the Red Army were placed at Eisenstein's disposal and he spent six months amassing 150,000 feet of film with his assistant director, Grigori Alexandrov. At the last moment, however, he was forced to re-edit the picture because Leon Trotsky had been expelled from the Communist Party by Joseph Stalin, who demanded that all references to the disgraced Menshevik should be excised. Such revisionism recurs throughout this iconoclastic feature, as Eisenstein experimented with a technique he called 'intellectual montage', which juxtaposed seemingly unconnected images to coax the audience into seeking a symbolic meaning. The most famous example contrasts the preening Kerensky with a bust of Napoleon and a mechanical peacock. However, the montage denouncing religion is more devastating in its elegant fury.

In all, Eisenstein constructed his epic from 3200 shots. Once again, he celebrated the contribution of the many and selected the extras according to type to convey a sense of inclusivity. However, he offended some in high place by casting lorry driver Vasili Nikandrov as Lenin and, when his treatise on collective farming, The Old and the New (aka The General Line), was cancelled in 1929, he gratefully accepted the invitation to travel abroad to learn about new sound techniques and the latest methods of industrial film production. He visited Berlin, London, Zurich and Paris, where he collaborated respectively with Tissé and Alexandrov on the shorts Frauennot (1929) and Romance Sentimentale (1930).

In April 1930, Eisenstein arrived in Hollywood and signed a contract at Paramount. However, his attempts to adapt George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, Blaise Cendrars's Sutter's Gold and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy came to nothing. He did, however, forge friendships with Walt Disney, documentarist Robert Flaherty and Charlie Chaplin, who introduced him to socialist writer Upton Sinclair, who sponsored the expedition to make Que Viva Mexico!, which is recreated with such irreverent glee by Peter Greenaway in Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015).

Eisenstein returned to find the USSR a changed place. Cinema was now part of the remit of Boris Shumyatsky, who had been charged by Stalin with enforcing a code of Socialist Realism across the arts so that they served a common socio-political purpose. While heading the directing department at VGIK, Eisenstein struggled to greenlight a history of Moscow and a biopic of Haitian patriot Toussaint L'Ouverture, while his attempt to adapt Ivan Turgenev's Bezhin Meadow in 1935 was hampered by script interference and a lengthy illness that resulted in the project being cancelled.

When his failings were listed in Pravda in 1937, Eisenstein had to issue a pamphlet entitled The Mistakes of Bezhin Meadow, in order to be considered for future assignments. Now viewed with suspicion by the Kremlin, he succeeded in completing only two more films over the next decade, Alexander Nevsky (1938) - his sound debut, which boasted a magnificent score by Sergei Prokofiev - and Ivan the Terrible (1944), which was produced at the Alma Ata studio in Kazakhstan and saw montage replaced by the mise-en-scène technique in an effort to create what was termed 'vertical montage' and 'synaesthesia'.

Shortly after completing editing on Ivan the Terrible: Part 2, Eisenstein died of a heart attack, leaving a concluding part of the trilogy, Ivan's Struggles, unmade. A decade passed before the film was released, by which time Soviet cinema was in something of a slump. Seven decades after his death, Eisenstein's influence continues to be felt in advertising and pop videos, as well as mainstream, arthouse and avant-garde cinema. But he was not alone in advocating the use of the five types of montage: metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal and intellectual.

The Art of Linkage

While Eisenstein spent relatively little time with Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin became a devoted disciple. Having been captured by the Germans during the war, he threw himself into film-making on his return and took acting roles when not writing scripts or assisting his mentor. In 1925, he teamed with Nikolai Shpikovsky to direct Chess Fever, which slipped shots of champion José Raoul Capablanca into the action to make it seem as though he was part of the story. Pudovkin discussed such creative editing in a number of influential essays before making his feature bow with Mother (1926), an adaptation of a Maxim Gorky story that prompted Charlie Chaplin to pay homage in Modern Times (1936) to the scene in which Vera Baranovskaya picks up a red flag to lead a protest march after her wrongly jailed son is shot during an escape attempt.

Baranovskaya would play the wife of peasant Ivan Chuvelyov in The End of St Petersburg (1927), which was commissioned to mark the 10th anniversary of the overthrow of the monarchy. Forced to look for work in the capital, Chuvelyov finds himself toiling in inhumane conditions in a factory, where any hint of rebellion is suppressed with brutal swiftness. After three years of fighting at the front, however, Chuvelyov is ready to listen to Bolshevik ideas for a better future and play his part in seizing power after the cruiser Aurora fires on the Winter Palace.

Released to considerable acclaim, this rousing call to arms has since been dismissed as political melodrama, with Pudovkin being branded 'the Soviet Griffith'. Indeed, he has been accused of fetishising the Mongol fur trader played by Valéry Inkijinoff in Storm Over Asia (1928), which takes considerable liberties with historical fact to show how pro-White British forces seek to establish Inkijinoff as a puppet ruler after discovering he may be a descendant of Genghis Khan. Yet, this ambitious picture had a profound influence on the genre known as the 'Ostern' or 'Borscht Western', which borrowed tropes from the Hollywood and Spaghetti Western to mythologise the Civil War. Moreover, while Pudovkin might have fallen out of fashion with some critics, others have noted how he continued to experiment after making his talkie debut with Deserter (1931), which contained over 3000 separate images and made bold use of speech, music and ambient sound.

Pudovkin wasn't the only director to try and make propaganda palatable for the masses. Among the most popular pictures of the period were Ivan Perestiani's Little Red Devils (1923), Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky's The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom, Yakov Protazanov's Aelita (both 1924) and Boris Barnet's The Girl With the Hatbox (1927), which varied from comedy to adventure and science fiction. Some political tracts also struck chords, including Friedrich Ermler's Fragment of an Empire and Kozintsev and Trauberg's The New Babylon (both 1929). Kozintsev would later turn to literary adaptation, with his interpretations of Don Quixote (1957), Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971) all being available to rent from Cinema Paradiso. As is Esfir Shub's The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), a compilation documentary that included footage taken by the royal cameraman, which Shub found among the three million feet of film that she viewed during her researches.

Like Shub, Alexander Dovzhenko hailed from Ukraine and, like Pudovkin, he spent time in a POW camp after being captured during the Civil War. After spells as a teacher and a diplomat, he started illustrating children's books and drawing cartoons before coming to Odessa to work at the VUFKU studio in 1925. Almost immediately, he found his (silent) voice with Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930), which are collectively known as 'the Ukrainian trilogy'.

Although it centres on a treasure hunt in the 'ringing mountains' of Zvenigora, the first part of the triptych defies an easy narrative summary as it confronts a salt trader and his grandsons with Cossacks, a Rasputin-like monk, a princess and a black horse painted white. Considering he was self-taught, Dovzhenko's command of camera technique and editing is extraordinary, as he touched upon topics ranging from Ukrainian mythology and the beauty of the landscape to pacifism, industrialisation and the arrogance of the Western European bourgeoisie.

The story is easier to follow in the second picture, as demobilised soldier Semyon Svashenko returns to Kiev after surviving a train crash to become a Bolshevik deputy and lead a heroic rearguard against the White forces trying to capture the city's munitions store. By having his invulnerable hero proudly proclaim himself to be a Ukrainian worker, Dovzhenko was criticised for promoting parochialism rather than the greater good. But there's something unique about his humanist Marxism, while his readiness to experiment with long takes, as well as elliptical montage, gives his work a lyricism that is absent from that of his contemporaries.

This is most readily evident in Earth, a rhapsodic paean to pastoral patriotism that also packs a political punch, as Semyon Svashenko persuades his fellow villagers to purchase a tractor and challenge the rights of the landowning kulaks. Working once again with cinematographer Daniil Demutsky, Dovzhenko captures the bond between the peasants, the soil and the produce it yields, as he celebrates the natural cycle and the fact that a new spirit is abroad in this Edenic idyll.

This tendency to stray off message led to Dovzhenko being marginalised once Socialist Realism took hold of Soviet cinema. Consequently, he only completed four more features over the next 25 years, although he did produce several morale-boosting wartime documentaries with his editor wife, Yulia Solntseva, who also directed the sentimental and hugely popular tribute to the people's wartime resistance, The Story of the Flaming Years (1961).

Socialist Realism and Beyond

Cinema as an artform benefited enormously from the organisational chaos of the Soviet film industry in the decade after the 1917 revolutions and we should be equally grateful that so many classics produced during this turbulent period were preserved by a regime that wholly disapproved of them. But, while Shumyatsky proved an unlikely guardian of the silent legacy, he made it abundantly clear that he would brook no deviation from the tenets of the Socialist Realist doctrine following the transition to the sound processes patented by scientists Alexander Shorin and Pavel Tager.

The official line was that all art had to be relevant to the workers and accessible to them. To this end, storylines had to tackle everyday themes with a representational realism that encouraged support for the Party and the State. But, with the titans of the silent era struggling to acclimatise to the new conditions, the industry fell into the hands of journeymen artisans. Moreover, the need to supervise every aspect of production, while also wiring cinemas for sound across the vast expanse of the Soviet Union meant that production levels dipped alarmingly, with only 45 features being made in 1934. Among them was Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev's Chapayev (1934), a biopic of a courageous Red Army commander that epitomised the emphasis on heroes of the people that was also evident in Boris Barnet's Outskirts (1933) and By the Bluest of Blue Seas, Efim Dzigan's We From Kronstadt (both 1936), Kozintsev and Trauberg's Maxim trilogy (1937-39) and Mark Donskoi's Gorky trilogy (1938-40), which started with The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938).

By and large, audiences preferred escapist entertainments like Volga-Volga (1938) and Tractor Drivers (1939), which were respectively directed by Grigori Alexandrov and Ivan Pyriev as vehicles for their wives, Lyuba Orlova and Marina Ladynina. But once the Pact of Steel backfired on Stalin and Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the production focus shifted to newsreels and documentaries to boost the war effort. However, it took several years to recover pre-war production levels, with output dropping to an all-time low of five features in 1952.

The situation wasn't helped by Soyuzkino's decision to only grant release permits to unequivocable masterpieces. This meant that Eisenstein's The Boyars' Plot was shelved at the expense of dull Cold War glorifications like Mikhail Chiaureli's The Fall of Berlin (1949). However, Stalin sought to plug the gap by circulating so-called 'trophy films', which had been confiscated during the liberation of territories that the Red Army now occupied. The Kremlin hoped that audiences would be appalled by the antics permitted in the decadent West, but they enjoyed these glimpses into a world from which they were now separated by the Iron Curtain.

While Soviet cinema stagnated after Stalin's demise in 1953 - and event depicted in both Marc Dugain's An Ordinary Execution (2010) and Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin (2017) - the emphasis on national sacrifice continued with titles like Mikhail Kalatazov's Palme d'Or-winning The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Grigori Chukrai's Ballad of a Soldier (1959) and They Fought For Their Motherland (1975), which was directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, who had won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for his epic adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace (1966). But the thaw initiated by new leader Nikita Khrushchev was also felt in film circles, as new talents like Eldar Riazanov, Lev Kulidzhanov, Georgi Danelia and Eldar Shengelaia began to emerge alongside siblings Andrei Konchalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov, women directors Larisa Shepitko and Kira Muratova, and children's film specialists, Alexander Rou and Rylan Bykov. Indeed, even the war genre finally replaced stoic heroism with grim horror in Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985).

The most celebrated film-maker of this period was Andrei Tarkovsky, whose major works are all available to rent from Cinema Paradiso. But even he had his run-ins with the authorities and eventually completed his final feature, The Sacrifice (1986), in Swedish exile on Ingmar Bergman's favourite island location, Fårö. Alexander Askoldov's The Commissar (1967) was banned until the era of Glasnost and Perestroika because of its forthright views on anti-Semitism and women's rights, while Sergei Parajanov repeatedly fell foul of the authorities for his bold statements on Ukrainian, Georgian and Armenian issues in such avant-garde masterpieces as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Colour of Pomegranates (1969). Yet, despite being jailed between 1973-77 on false charges of corruption, rape and homosexuality, Parajanov continued to make films like The Legend of the Surami Fortress (1984) and Ashik Kerib (1988) until his death in 1990.

Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev (whose named inspired Stefano Incerti's Toni Servillo vehicle, Gorbaciof, 2010), Soviet cinema had finally begun to address daily life with a degree of honesty in pictures like Vladimir Menshov's Oscar winner, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1979). Viewed today, these slices of social realism seem a bit tame. But, without them, there would be no Sergei Bodrov, Alexei Balabanov, Timur Bekmambetov, Pavel Lounguine, Aleksey German, Andrei Zvyagintsev or Aleksandr Sokurov, whose Russian Ark (2002) makes the perfect antidote-cum-companion to any feature from the silent era, as it was filmed in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg (which is now part of the Hermitage Museum) in a single, record-breaking 96-minute take by German cinematographer Tilman Büttner using a Steadicam rig. What would the Soviet montagists have made of it?

If you're interested in further exploring Soviet cinema and/or silent films, don't forget to browse through our ever-expending catalogue!

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